Saturday, March 31, 2012

Send me your Mother’s Day vignettes, Part 2


Wednesday I invited you to submit a Mother’s Day vignette by April 30. (You can read that post here.)

Several of you are busily writing, and I’m enjoying everyone’s enthusiasm. I’ll select one vignette to publish here the week before Mother’s Day.

Helpful pointers:

Character Development:

Remember, every person is complex. Develop your character’s shortcomings, redeeming qualities, beliefs, relationships with others, prejudices, body language, tone of voice, attitudes, and quirks.

Was she sentimental or no-nonsense? Consistent or inconsistent? Gentle or gruff? Did she stand tall or did she slouch? Did she stress the importance of good table manners? What else was important to her?

Was she optimistic? Check out The Bookshelf Muse’s post today about describing an optimistic person. Angela and Becca aim their blog at fiction writers, but we nonfiction writers can discover gems for our writing, too. I hope you’ll take time to get acquainted with their rich resources. (You’ll also find an icon for The Bookshelf Muse here on my blog in the right sidebar.) 

For describing the people, you’ll find inspiration from a recent FaithWriters post, Four Dimensional Characterization, by Cate Russell-Cole.

Include emotions and sensory details:

You’ll find tips from Kathleen Pooler’s blog post, Evoking Emotions: The power of Sensory Detail in Storytelling, and from my earlier post, Method Writing.  (I can't get that link to work, so here it is:

Polish your lead—your opening sentences:

A lead can make or break a story: It can lure readers into it or send them away. Remember, most writers craft the lead after they’ve written the main body of the vignette.

Here are links to earlier posts about leads:

Leads, Part 1    

Give special attention to your vignette’s conclusion:

A weak ending can make a vignette fall short of its potential impact, but a strong ending is where the beauty of memoir shines.

Here are links to earlier posts about crafting an ending:

Links to mother-related pieces in the blogosphere:

While these are essaysnot in memoir format—they will give you ideas:

Over at A Diamond in the Rough, Jessica writes This Holy Work on being a new young mother.   

In The Hum of Something Holy over at The High Calling, two of Emily Wierenga’s phrases zinged right to my heart because my mother’s eyes are almost all that remains of the dear mother I’ve always known. Emily says, “…She looks at me with the same eyes that she’s always had.… And her eyes, they tell me she’s still my mom.… ” 

I Remember My Mom, my green tea-cher, will help jog your memories.  

My favorite, Pease Please by Donna DeWeerd, was the Grand Prize Winner last December over at Women’s Memoirs. Donna’s subtlety—what she doesn’t say—is very effective. Her message is powerful, too.

You might be interested in the Sixth National Women’s Conference entitled “Pearls of Wisdom: Memoirs About Mothers” which takes place in Austin, Texas, April 13-15. I’ve never attended one of their conferences but it looks good.

When you’ve polished your Mother’s Day story, submit it by April 30 for consideration. I’ll be happy to edit it if you wish.

Your vignette should be 700 words or less in a Word document, sent as an attachment, to grandmaletters [at] aol [dot] com. (Replace [at] with @ and replace [dot] with a period, scrunch it all together, and that should reach me.) Please write “Mother’s Day Vignette for SM 101” in the subject line so I’ll know it’s not spam. Thanks.

I’ll choose one story to publish here the week before Mother’s Day.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Send me your Mother’s Day vignettes


Have you written a vignette about your mother for your memoir? Perhaps you’ve written a story about your own motherhood, or about someone who played an important mothering role in your life.

If so, e-mail me your Mother’s Day vignette by April 30 and I’ll select one to publish here the week before Mother’s Day.

Spiff up your rough draft (or start writing it), keeping in mind the definition of memoir.

In Spiritual Memoirs 101, we go beyond mere memories. Within our memories, we search for greater treasures: what God was doing in and for and through us, and others, at the time.

“… The author must impose a coherence
on events he chooses to include
that may not have been present as he lived them.…
It’s that selectivity that transforms a memoir
from a report to a reflection
which gives meaning to the events
which might not have been evident to the author
as she lived them.”
(The Author’s Dual Role in a Memoir, by Biff Barnes)

“Rather than simply telling a story from her life,
the memoirist both tells the story
and muses upon it,
trying to unravel what it means
in the light of her current knowledge.…
The contemporary memoir includes retrospection
as an essential part of the story.
Your reader [is] interested in how you now,
looking back on it,
understand it.

(Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir)

“As memoir writers
we are trying to find a perspective,
even forgiveness and compassion,
for ourselves and others as we write our stories.”

Write out your delights as well as your doubts. Ask questions even if you have no answers. Include your thoughts—even your struggles—concerning your mother, and yourself, and what was going on.

Mull over, sift through, analyze, explore, untangle, sort out.

Examine what God was doing as you see it now, in retrospect.

What did you learn about yourself? About mothers? About God?

When you’ve polished your Mother’s Day story, submit it for consideration by April 30. I’ll be happy to edit it if you wish.

Your vignette should be 700 words or less in a Word document, sent as an attachment, to grandmaletters [at] aol [dot] com (replace [at] with @ and replace [dot] with a period, scrunch it all together, and that should reach me). Please write “Mother’s Day Vignette for SM 101” in the subject line so I’ll know it’s not spam. Thanks.

I’ll choose one story to publish here the week before Mother’s Day. Happy writing!

Next time: more tips on writing a Mother’s Day vignette.

Links and resources:

What is a memoir,

The beauty and bonuses of memoir,

The Author’s Dual Role in a Memoir, by Biff Barnes in About Memoirs and Personal History Books, The Author’s Craft, 

Writing the Memoir Judith Barrington,

Linda Joy Myers,

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Maximize the power of your vignettes’ endings


The beauty of memoir shines brightest at the conclusion of each of your vignettes (chapters).

For that reason, avoid simple, trite “and they lived happily ever after” endings.

For the benefit of (a) your readers and (b) yourself, take plenty of time to discover the core—the heart, the soul—of each vignette and highlight that in your conclusion.

Keep this in mind, however: You might not know the real ending until you’ve written your story and have taken time to mull it over. That process could take days, or months, or even years.

Let me show you what I mean. Below are excerpts (for brevity’s sake) from a piece I wrote several years ago. I’ll stop along the way to make important points:

Rural South America

February, 1978

I trudged up the steep hill, dusty red. It was only 7:45 in the morning and already sweat ran down my forehead and back. I looked forward to reaching level ground at the top and turning left toward my office, but first I would stop at the post office.

Every day I delighted in peeking into our cubbyhole and finding mail from loved ones in the U.S. That had always been the best part of my day.

But today, like so many days recently, my stomach knotted at the thought of what I might find in our mail slot. Would today be the day? Would we get our financial statement from two months ago and learn the bad news?
I rounded the corner at the top of the hill and stepped into the cool shade of the post office. I reached into our cubbyhole. Yes, this was the day. My throat went dry as I unfolded our financial statement.

Two months earlier, my husband, Dave, had fallen mysteriously ill. There we were, at the end of the road in the middle of nowhere, working with Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). We had no doctor, but we had a nurse. Alarmed at Dave’s symptoms, she insisted he had to go to the capital city for prompt medical treatment.…

… The doctors eventually sent him back home to us, but not before he had run up a bill of $400. That was a huge amount back in the 1970s, and it was $400 more than we had.
We were not paid employees of SIL. Nobody was. Instead, we depended on donations from people back home, which they sent to our California headquarters and earmarked for our family. Sometimes people sent money every month but others sent donations only occasionally—so we never knew our financial status.

That was further complicated because it took two months to receive our financial statements from California and find out how much money we had. We’d always lived within our means, with a lot of effort, but we never had a surplus and certainly not the enormous amount of $400 for Dave’s doctor bills. And that’s why my stomach knotted on the way to work, wondering, “Is this the day we’ll get our financial statement and learn we have no money left for food and rent?”
Now that dreaded day had come. I stood in the post office, financial statement in hand. My eyes skimmed down the alphabetical list of donors. To my surprise, among the B’s was a name I’d never seen on our list before: Bill and Marion Best. I’d grown up in their church, and I’d babysat their kids a few times, but I hadn’t seen them for years. My eyes ran across the page to see the amount they’d sent. It was $400, the exact amount of Dave’s medical bills.
“Wait a minute,” I said to myself. “Dave’s bills were incurred two months ago.” I checked the date the Bests’ money had arrived in California: just days before Dave’s illness. How could they have known?
I fought tears. How could this have happened?
God tells us, “… Before they call, I will answer….” (Isaiah 65:24). Jesus said, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8). Yes, even before Dave got sick, even before we knew we’d have a need, God worked in the Bests’ hearts to meet our need.

I ended my vignette here the first time: I had discovered what God was doing on my family’s behalf in the midst of our worrisome experience. As a result, I no longer looked at those Bible passages from merely an academic standpoint because I had personally experienced the message of those words: I had experienced God at work.

A few months after I’d written that ending, however, I realized that deeper lessons awaited my discovery, hidden beneath the surface, so I dug down and here’s what I added to the original ending:

It’s important to understand that God doesn’t promise to solve all our problems even before we know about them. He says He knows what we need even before we do, and He even says, “Before they call, I will answer,” but His answer might be, “Wait a while for the solution,” because sometimes God needs to work in our hearts, and maybe other people’s hearts, before we are ready for His answer. God might not have nudged the Bests to send their $400 when they did. Or perhaps He could have nudged them, but they’d put it off for a couple of months. Or maybe God had altogether different ways of meeting our need, but here’s the point I learned: He hears our prayers and when His time is right, He provides.

That was my second ending, but a few months later, after writing other stories, I spent time pondering and reflecting—necessary ingredients in memoir (click here to review the definition of memoir) —and to my surprise I recognized a pattern in my stories and therefore a pattern in my life. In doing so, I had discovered more significant lessons, so I added to my vignette’s ending (but I’m still tweaking it):

So why had my stomach knotted over our medical bills? Because I doubted God’s desire to help. Looking back over my life, I now see a pattern: Too many times I doubted God’s willingness to help me.  I had been viewing God as a fair-weather friend—fickle, unpredictable—someone I could not always count on through thick and thin. Now I’m ashamed of that attitude. It must hurt God so much for me to doubt Him. And come to think of it, my attitude must deeply offend Him.

Imagine! Suspecting God of being untrustworthy! Yet He patiently keeps showing me that He is trustworthy. I am a slow learner, but a major turning point occurred once I recognized my pattern of doubting God. Since that day in 1978, my faith has been more settled than before: I am more relaxed in God's love, and with His help I am trusting Him more and more.

That’s what I meant at the beginning of today’s post: The beauty of memoir shines brightest at the conclusion of each vignette—and not just for readers. God can use our stories to bless us, the writers.

Recognizing God’s loving involvement in your life transforms you and deepens your faith for the future.

Here’s the key: You must take time to reflect, to dig deeper. If you do, you can discover new insights into your relationship with God and His faithfulness to you.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What do you know of failure and valor and brick walls?

It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,
or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man
who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred
by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly;
who errs, and comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph
of high achievement,
and who at the worst, if he fails,
at least fails while daring greatly,
so that
his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls
who know neither victory nor defeat.

(President Theodore Roosevelt)

“Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something bad enough. They are there to keep out other people.”  (Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture)

Read those two passages again, noting which phrases resonate with you.

What people come to mind when you read these statements? What did those individuals teach you?

What experiences surface from your own past: What do you know of failure and valor and brick walls? What lessons did you learn in the midst of them? What did you learn about God and yourself?

Which Bible passages do these stories illustrate?

What stories can you write—about your own experience or someone else’s—that will pass on wisdom and tenacity and faith to your memoir’s readers?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Do you ever wonder if your words matter?

Do you ever get discouraged about writing your memoir?

You know how hard it is to find time to write, to pin down each vignette’s inner message, search for just the right words, revise, rewrite, organize….

Do you wonder whether all your effort is worth it?

Well, I have an important message for you.

Listen carefully: Your words matter! Your stories make a difference!

Here’s what I mean:

Let me tell you about James H. Pence. He dreamed of being a writer—“wildly successful” and “insanely rich.”

“People were going to mention me in hushed, awestruck tones….”

In 2003 Pence’s dream came true. He published a novel, Blind Sight, which earned him both excellent reviews and fame.

“I had dreams of a bestseller,” Pence says, “but … when my second royalty statement showed massive returns—and a large deficit—I was crushed.

“.… Finally I prayed, ‘Lord, I wrote this book for you and I’m giving it back to you. If you’ll use it in even one life, I’ll be happy.’”

By 2005, his book went out of print and his writing career screeched to a halt.

But God was not finished with Pence or his book.

Three years later, March 1, 2008, two men broke into Terry and Penny Caffey’s home, shot Terry five times at point blank range, killed Penny and their sons, and set the house on fire.

Terry was devastated. And confused: Why did God take his family? And why did He let Terry go on living?

In his blog post, You Never Know, Pence continues:

“About six weeks after the murders, Terry went back to his property to ‘have it out with God.’ He stood on the ashes of his house and cried out, ‘God why did you take my family? I need an answer and I need it today.’

“At that moment he saw a brown, scorched piece of paper leaning against a tree. Terry picked it up.

“It was a single page from my novel. But it wasn’t just any page. It was the page where my protagonist—a man who has lost a wife and two children—comes to grips with God’s sovereignty in his loss.

“The first words on the page were, ‘I couldn’t understand why You would take my family and leave me to struggle along without them … but I do believe You’re sovereign. You’re in control.’

“God used those words to turn Terry Caffey’s life around, and now he travels all over the country sharing an incredible story of grace and forgiveness.…

“My novel wasn’t a bestseller, but God took one page from it and changed a life. And now that man is touching thousands.

“Don’t be discouraged. Keep writing.

“You never know what God might do with your words.”

Pence wrote fiction—you and I write memoir (nonfiction)—but words are words, and messages are messages, and they hold transforming power within. God uses words—God uses your words!

So while you write your memoir, and when you hand it to your family, I hope you’ll pray James Pence’s prayer: “Lord, I wrote this book for you and I’m giving it back to you. If you’ll use it in even one life, I’ll be happy.”

P.S. This is not the end of the story!

Now, in 2012, God is still using Pence’s words—in ways he could never have dreamed.

“God not only used that page to change Terry’s life; He also used it to change the entire direction of my writing,” says Pence in his recent blog post, The Accidental Collaborator. Take two minutes to read it. You’ll love it.

I'm taking a week off for some special family time. While I'm away, I hope you'll follow the blogs in the sidebar to the right. They are full of interesting instruction and inspiration!

Related links and references:

You Never Know,

The Accidental Collaborator,

Jeff Goins, Writer,

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Key people in your life: A perfect preparation

In the Bible study Anointed, Transformed, Redeemed, Beth Moore recommends:

“Name several people God has used to make the biggest investments on the servant you are becoming in Christ. Beside each name, write a phrase describing what you’ve received most from that person.”

Let’s do it!

1. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_____________________________________________________________

2. _____________________________________________________________

3. _____________________________________________________________

4. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_____________________________________________________________

Beth continues,

“Now go back and draw a ‘+’ under each line to add it to the next. Then in the space under the last line, jot down several ways you are distinct from all of them. The sum total is a tiny glimpse of who you are.

“Your uniqueness as an earthen vessel of Christ in your generation will often result from having a couple of tablespoons of one person’s influence on you, a fourth of a cup of another’s, and a teaspoon of many….” (emphasis mine)

Wendy Welch passes on this wisdom she learned from Dan Keding:

“A personal story is not about you. It’s about all the people around you. If you are the hero of your own story, it’s not going to come out right, ring true, or be interesting enough to hold people’s attention.… Talk about what happened to other people first, and how you felt about that, what you did because of it.…

“[Dan] told us about growing up in Chicago with a Holocaust survivor friend named Stan. His story was about Stan, but when it was over, we all knew so much more about Dan.”  (Me-me-me Memoirs; emphasis mine)

Think about this: Those people on your list did not just accidentally enter your life. God gave them a role to play in making you into the person you are today, and into the person you are becoming. Their story is part of your story.

Like Corrie Ten Boom said, “Every person [God] puts in our lives, is the perfect preparation for the future that only he can see.” 

Use today’s exercise (and review “Like a Sneak Attack”) to write your stories, thanking God for gifting you with those special individuals!

Pray, too, for God to use you and your memoir to serve as a holy tablespoon of influence—or even a fourth of a cup!—in your readers’ lives.

References and links:
Anointed, Transformed, Redeemed,

Wendy Welch, Me-me-me Memoirs,

Like a Sneak Attack,